The Muslim City of Lisbon

Every year on Fat Tuesday, dozens of people line up in Praça de Espanha on the periphery of central Lisbon, waiting for one of the infrequent buses heading to Sesimbra.

On that day, the small coastal town comes alive with a Carnaval parade complete with floats, drummers, exotic dancers in dazzling costumes and all the pre-Lenten debauchery it can pack into one afternoon.

In Lisbon, revellers line up for the bus in anticipation of experiencing that most Catholic of festivals. But while they wait, a glance to the other side of the square reveals something that doesn’t fit the occasion: a mosque.

With its soaring minaret and turquoise domes, the Central Mosque of Lisbon would appear more at home in Central Asia than in the Portuguese capital, where it presents a striking contrast with the city’s whitewashed, baroque churches.

The Central Mosque of Lisbon, at Praça de Espanha, was built in the 1980s. Photo: Nick Leonard.

But although the Islamic house of worship seems inherently out of place in this deeply Christian land, modern appearances can be deceiving.

Because in the Middle Ages, Lisbon was a Muslim city for nearly four-and-a-half centuries.

In AD 711, Arabs and North African Berbers known collectively as Moors (mouros in Portuguese) crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and overran the Iberian Peninsula.

Three years after the initial invasion, the Moors captured Lisbon — the former Roman town of Olisipo — renamed it al-Ušbuna and ruled it for the next 433 years with only a couple of brief interruptions.

While Moorish Lisbon was smaller than the Roman city that preceded it, al-Ušbuna was still a significant settlement for its time, with a population of between 5,000 and 20,000 people.

To fortify the city, the Moors improved the old Roman walls, creating a new circuit, known today as the cerca moura, that was about 1250 metres long and contained six gates.

Remains of the Muslim city wall, the ‘cerca moura’, in the Casa dos Bicos. Photo: Nick Leonard.

These walls surrounded the compact Muslim city, limited to just one of Lisbon’s hills. The hill was a source of hot spring water — al-hamma in Arabic, the root word for hammam, a bathing space in the Islamic world.

The word also survives in the modern name of the settlement on the hill that once comprised the entire city and is now the oldest and most famous historical neighbourhood in Lisbon: Alfama.

Entering Alfama today from the adjacent Baixa — Lisbon’s post-earthquake, Enlightenment-era downtown — or the riverside esplanade to the south is like being catapulted back into the Middle Ages.

With its winding alleyways, hodge-podge architecture and neighbours chatting from window to window across the narrow streets, Alfama creates the impression that little has changed in centuries.

Writing nearly 100 years ago, Lisbon poet Fernando Pessoa said a visitor to Alfama ‘will get a notion no other place can give him of what Lisbon was like in the past. Everything will evoke that past here — the architecture, the type of streets, the arches and stairways, the wooden balconies, the very habits of the people who live there a life full of noise, of talk, of songs, of poverty and of dirt.’

A typical Alfama scene, reminiscent of the Muslim world. ‘The topographical layout of medieval Lisbon was above all Islamic,’ wrote Portuguese historian António Oliveira Marques. Photo: Nick Leonard.

Though only traces of the Muslim walls remain today, the layout of Alfama is still dictated by them. Where gates and towers once stood, arches now serve as portals that transport visitors to a different world.

From those lower-city arches, Alfama rises up the hill that once formed the core of Lisbon’s ancient strategic position.

‘Hiking up and down the medieval neighbourhood’s often steep and slender streets isn’t just a walk through Lisbon’s history,’ wrote Barry Hatton in his Lisbon biography Queen of the Sea.

‘It is also a physically demanding, delightful and vicarious exercise.’

At the end of the climb through Alfama, on top of the 110-metre high hill, lies St. George’s Castle, whose fortifications were expanded by the Moors to serve as a residence for their rulers.

It was here that al-Ušbuna fell in 1147.

In the early decades of the 12th century, the armies of the nascent kingdom of Portugal — which had originated around the northern city of Porto, from where it takes its name — began marching south.

Under Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, the Christians initiated a reconquest of Muslim lands, methodically capturing cities until the path to al-Ušbuna lay open in the summer of 1147.

Critically, Afonso’s 5,000 Portuguese troops were bolstered by 12,000 Northern European knights who joined his cause as part of a side venture of the Second Crusade.

The siege began on the first of July and lasted beyond the end of summer until the desperate defenders opened the gates in late October. It had taken less than four months to end over 400 years of Muslim rule in Lisbon.

St. George’s Castle was the citadel of al-Ušbuna but it was almost entirely rebuilt in the 1940s. Photo: Nick Leonard.

Afonso quickly Christianised the city, building the cathedral that still stands today and the first version of St. Vincent’s church where his army had camped during the siege.

But although Lisbon would be a Christian city from then on, Afonso allowed defeated Muslims to settle outside the walls to the north of Alfama rather than having them killed or sold into slavery.

This Moorish ghetto was called simply that: the mouraria.

More than 850 years later, the most common way to access the old Muslim district of Lisbon — still called Mouraria — is via a square named after Martim Moniz, a mythical hero on the Christian side in the siege of 1147.

Like Alfama, Mouraria has retained its medieval layout and dilapidated charm. But of the two adjacent neighbourhoods, Mouraria is considered the poorer cousin: less famous, less safe, with fewer monuments, no viewpoints, and no tuk-tuk tours.

The architectural jumble of Mouraria, seen from the base of St. George’s Castle in Alfama. Photo: Nick Leonard.

The descendants of Mouraria’s original inhabitants are no longer there, either. While having Muslims living under Christian rule in Lisbon helped inspire the moniker ‘City of Tolerance’, neither was ultimately to last.

The rest of Portugal was reconquered for Christianity within a century, and eventually King Manuel expelled all Muslims from his kingdom in 1496, bringing an end to the Islamic presence in Portugal after nearly 800 years.

As the centuries wore on and Lisbon was hit with plagues, riots and a devastating earthquake in 1755, Mouraria became the poorest neighbourhood in the city.

Partly as a result of this, it turned into a cultural melting pot beginning in the 1990s as immigrants poured into the neighbourhood, most notably from the Muslim country of Bangladesh.

These days, the main street of Mouraria, Rua do Benformoso, is filled with Bangladeshi restaurants, barber shops, wire transfer services and other businesses, with plans for a new mosque to be built on the street.

The resulting irony is that half a millennium after Muslims were expelled from Portugal, Mouraria is — in a manner of speaking — a mouraria once again.

Today, a few stretches of crumbling city wall and a rebuilt castle are virtually the only tangible remains of Muslim rule in Lisbon.

Outside the capital, a few Islamic monuments exist, but nothing to rival the mosques and palaces of neighbouring Spain.

The Moorish Castle in Sintra retains more of its Islamic form than St. George’s Castle in Lisbon. Photo: Nick Leonard.

But if not through visible cultural heritage, the legacy of the Moors in Portugal is maintained in other ways.

These include the Muslim introduction of basic foods like bananas, coconuts, corn and rice to Portugal and genealogical studies showing that 14 per cent of Portuguese people have North African ancestry.

It’s through language, however, that echoes of Islam still swirl around the former city of al-Ušbuna on a daily basis.

Hundreds of modern Portuguese words come from Arabic, including alcachofra (artichoke, from al-kharshof), alecrim (rosemary, from al-iklil), almofada (pillow, from al-mukhadda), and azul (blue, from az-zaward).

Two particularly intriguing Arabic-derived words are laranja (orange, from naranj), considering Portugal’s role in bringing the fruit to Europe, and alface (lettuce, from al-khasu), for the quirky adjective it has inspired in Lisbon.

In addition to being called lisboetas, residents of the capital are known as alfacinhas (little lettuces), supposedly because of the abundant amount of lettuce grown outside the walls of al-Ušbuna a thousand years ago.

For those who hail from the northern city of Porto, however, that subtle dig at their rival’s Muslim past doesn’t suffice, and they prefer a more direct nickname for people from Lisbon.

They simply call them Moors.

Compulsive traveller, Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Olympic journalist and light-chasing photographer.

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